Posted in Fairness Campaigns
This report is an account of the enquiries and responses arising from our continuing investigation into the relationships between local authorities and heir hunters.
Please note that, unless denoted otherwise by square brackets, all quotes from the local authorities included in this document are recorded verbatim.
In June 2015 Anglia Research began sending requests to local authorities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) regarding their use of genealogical researchers or ‘heir hunters’ to trace next of kin when the authority needed to conduct a public health funeral.
Our aim was to try to understand the nature of these arrangements and the reasons given by authorities as to why they were using researchers, rather than following the established procedure of making referrals to the Bona Vacantia Division of the Government Legal Department, or to the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall.
This report provides an overview of our enquiries and the responses. For an in-depth appraisal of the legal implications, please see our guidance notes.
Decision-making by public bodies must be undertaken rationally and not unreasonably. If the reasoning behind the local authorities' use of heir hunters is disclosed, the rationality of their decision-making can then be assessed.
By 29 November 2016, a total of 117 local authorities had been contacted. These were selected because we saw evidence that suggested that these authorities appeared to have some relationship with heir hunters, either under that description or with the equivalent titles of probate researchers, genealogists or tracing agents, etc.
Of the 112 that responded, 86 disclosed their use of a genealogist/researcher. Most of these authorities had used them on several occasions and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council in particular has used these services extensively, stating that “[s]ince January 2015 we have referred all cases to a genealogical researcher”.
The 117 local authorities that we contacted were chosen because they had either responded to an initial FOIA request admitting to the use of researchers or there was reason to believe that selected heir hunters were receiving advance knowledge of intestate deaths in a particular local authority area.
Of the 112 that responded, 20 denied using researchers at all, even though eleven of these had previously admitted to using one or more researchers in earlier FOIA responses. The remaining nine, despite their denials, seem likely to have arrangements in place with heir hunters based on information observed by Anglia Research in the course of our genealogical work.
A small minority of the local authorities were unclear. Exeter City Council, for example, originally said that their bereavement services department was in contact with two companies, but after a further FOIA request replied: “Apologies, I think there may be some confusion regarding our responses to your previous request. These organisations were listed in our response to your previous request, as examples of organisations which the council may use if we need to contact such a firm.”
Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council initially admitted to using two companies, but later denied any “agreement” and explained that the contact was merely because the companies had “submitted freedom of information requests asking for the information”.
Others said that they used researcher(s) for tracing owners of long-term empty properties but not for public health funeral matters.
Of the 86 that admitted to using researchers, 74 denied having a contract and/or formal arrangement and many described the relationship as “informal” or “ad hoc”.
Only Thanet District Council, Cheshire East Council and Enfield London Borough Council said that they had a contract with the researcher(s) they use. Manchester City Council were able to produce a “data protection agreement” with the firm they use.
The remainder failed to provide the requested information or gave unclear responses. Enfield London Borough Council, for instance, who published an invitation to tender for the service online and who had previously provided Anglia Research with their contract with a particular company, have been particularly contradictory. Despite our having a copy of the contract, their recent email from 7 October 2016 in relation to a separate FOIA request clearly states “Enfield does not have a contract with a genealogical researcher”.
Birmingham City Council explained that they advertised using their procurement process, and stated that they used researchers but did not clearly indicate whether or not they had formal contracts with the companies, simply that they “can be used by the council”.
In addition to the use of researchers, Birmingham say that their “Funerals and Protection of Property team placed an opportunity on Birmingham City Council’s ‘finditinbirmingham’ procurement web portal in Autumn 2015, for a ‘One Stop’ Contractor Required to aid the Council’s Funerals and Protection of Property Team to Value and Dispose of Assets, Gaining Maximum Value for the Estate’ [sic]. Apparently the company “Prospect PS were the successful bidder and were duly appointed to assist the Council in dealing with property relating to public health funerals required under Section 46 of the Public Health Act (Control of Disease) 1984 and clients subject to the Care Act 2014. Their contract with the Council commenced in December 2015.”
Although Prospect PS appear to provide house clearance and other property services, their director’s occupation is listed as “probate researcher” on the Companies House website. Prospect PS also has links at director level with heir hunting company Estate Research: of the three former directors of the now dissolved Beehive Homes (UK), one is a director of Prospect PS and one a director of Estate Research – and both are now shareholding directors of Hammer Price Homes.
FOIA requests have been made to try to discern more about the work Prospect PS undertake for local authorities.
The councils that justified the lack of contract tended to believe it unnecessary to formalise the arrangement because the councils do not pay for the services.
There are a number of examples where councils sought to justify such an approach.
- Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council argue that “[n]o contract has been drawn up as there is no financial transaction between the authority and [a particular company] therefore meets the requirements outlined in public procurement regulations 2015.”
- South Derbyshire District Council state that “[g]iven the nature of the services being sought we were not required to go through a formal competitive quote or tendering process”.
- Purbeck District Council say that “no arrangement or contract currently exists” and that the company they use “was not provided with exclusivity in terms of the information or with finding the NOK”. However, they also say that the “clear procedures in place around finding NOK and cooling off period for any NOK which signed” were “part of the decision of choosing" the company they use. While they appear to have already made a “decision” to use a particular company, they say that this was a “trial” and that they “will be putting out a tender in due course”.
- Similarly, Durham County Council stated that their use of a particular company was a “trial”, although they have used them on three occasions, and that “Bereavement Services, in the near future will be discussing with Procurement what is expected and will take a view at that point. There is no date set as to when this will take place currently.”
Reasons for the use of researchers
Saving money and resources
A minority of the local authorities that use heir hunters declined to elaborate on their reasons for doing so.
However, it is clear that the prevalent motivation is the desire for any located next of kin to take over funeral arrangements rather than going ahead with a public health funeral or, if the funeral had already taken place, to recoup the funeral costs incurred by the council from the next of kin. A total of 51 councils referred to one or both of these reasons.
There was seemingly a lack of awareness that if there are sufficient assets in a deceased person’s estate, by statute the authority will be able to recover funeral costs whether or not they involve themselves in tracing next of kin (see guidance notes 5-12).
There is a clear agenda of trying to avoid resources being spent on a public health funeral: of the 112 local authorities that responded, seven referred explicitly to saving officers’ time and 27 to saving money.
Fareham Borough Council say that “[i]n our experience, finding relatives usually results in them offering to make the arrangements instead of the Council”. Whether this is borne out by statistics and whether any estranged or distant relatives ever do fund a funeral out of their own pocket is the subject of a further set of requests under the FOIA.
For some councils, their claimed savings include the resources that they imply they would otherwise have deployed searching for kin themselves.
- Medway Council see the use of researchers as a “financial opportunity to reduce operating costs”.
- Nottingham City Council state that “[t]here is a public interest in the Council exploring all potential avenues to locate next of kin to hopefully negate the responsibility of funding the deceased person’s funeral falling on the Council.”
- Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council believe they are “speeding up the process of tracing next of kin and protecting the public purse e.g. if there is any property, this improves local land value within the borough.”
- Milton Keynes Borough Council say that tracing kin is particularly important “in those cases where there are no funds in the estate”. In this situation funeral costs cannot be recouped from the estate, so unless family members take over the funeral the cost will fall solely on the local authority.
It is worth noting that, in their marketing materials, many heir hunters offer to trace relatives free of charge in cases where there are no assets, in order to build a relationship with the local authority and thus catch the cases where there are assets. Some even offer a financial contribution towards unfunded public health funerals (see guidance note 31i).
Public Health Act and legal reasons
Of the councils that use genealogists, 32 mistakenly claim that tracing next of kin is part of, or related to, their legal obligations under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. This Act places unitary and district councils under a duty to provide a funeral for people who die in their area where no one has taken (or is currently taking) responsibility for the funeral. However, it does not place them under a duty to trace next of kin (see guidance note 13).
Nevertheless, responses such as these were received:
- Allerdale Borough Council explain that “[t]he relevant legislation places a statutory obligation on local authorities to make funeral arrangements for those who die without anyone willing or able to make the arrangements. By tracing next of kin we can ascertain if the funeral falls under the relevant legislation and try to recover any costs we incur”.
- Stafford Borough Council argue that “under section 46 of Public Health Control of Diseases Act 1984 the Local Authority has a duty to take reasonable steps to determine the next of kin of deceased persons that die within the district where not originally known”.
- Poole Borough Council state that “[a]ny ad hoc dealings with [two heir hunting companies] are to facilitate the Local Authority’s duties under the Public Health and Infectious Diseases Act”.
- Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council believe that “[t]he legislation requires local authorities to ensure that there are no next of kin prior to arrangements for funerals to be made”.
It is worth noting that the London Borough of Enfield inaccurately extend the remit of the Public Health Act to include the appointment of a genealogist to trace next of kin, explicitly stating in their tender document that they are “seeking to appoint a provider of International Genealogy Family Research and Probate under Section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984”.
Other legislation is also referred to by Nottingham, Purbeck and Oldham councils.
- Nottingham City Council argue that the “[l]egislative background” to the council’s use of tracing firms “is the Administration of Estates Act 1925, we do not administer the estates we just try to find the entitled party if we can’t then we hand the matter to Treasury Solicitor”.
- According to Purbeck District Council, the “decision to trial a finding agency” was made only under the powers accorded by “section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 and the power of general competence in section 1 of the Localism Act 2011”.
- Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council say “[t]he council have a statutory duty under the Care Act 2014 to deal with the death of a service user and where there are no next of kin at the time of death. We believe it is necessary to trace next of kin due to a duty of care for the deceased and for the family.” They believe they “will be publically accountable for not making attempts to trace next of kin and ensure they are notified of their relatives passing”.
There seems to be a misunderstanding or misinterpretation over how far the perceived duty to locate kin extends. South Derbyshire District Council’s use of an heir hunter was “to satisfy ourselves that we had made reasonable investigation to establish the existence of a next of kin”.
Several councils state that they fear reprisals from next of kin if they undertake a public health funeral for the deceased without having first located them.
- Manchester City Council say “[i]f the Authority was aware that kin existed and did not make all efforts to trace kin, the Authority could be criticised at a later point if the kin then became aware that a funeral had been undertaken without their knowledge”.
- Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council note that “[w]hen referrals are eventually made to BV, companies [...] do eventually locate families. This then often adds further distress when families find out that their loved ones have often been buried in a communal grave. The main question to us is that why we could not locate them and we then have to explain why we sold off their relatives goods”.
- Mole Valley District Council see reprisals from relatives as a potential legal threat: “We make efforts to contact relatives/friends of the deceased to allow them the opportunity to arrange the funeral, or be able to attend should we take over this function. If we did not do this it may well cause distress to those individuals and we may be accused of acting ultra vires”.
Treasury Solicitor and Bona Vacantia reasons
The Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) of the Government Legal Department (formerly the office of the Treasury Solicitor/TSol) accepts referrals where the assets of a person who has died intestate may be bona vacantia or ‘ownerless property’ because there is no blood relative to inherit them under the rules of intestacy.
Twenty-two of the authorities that use researchers indicated that they do so because they cannot refer cases to the BVD where it is known, believed or suspected that there are surviving kin.
Wyre Borough Council elaborate: “the Estates Group of TSol's Bona Vacantia Division requests that local authorities make reasonable enquiries to establish whether the deceased has left entitled relatives or a will. It is acknowledged by the TSoI that the definition of what constitutes reasonable enquiries will differ from case to case, however it is expected that the authority will write to the address of any possible relative found during the Council's investigation. It is therefore considered reasonable that a search company be employed on occasion to trace kin.”
Some of the councils report that they have had referrals rejected by the BVD on the basis that there were surviving kin.
- Devon County Council say that they have “experienced some problems, significant delays and referrals returned as [BVD] were not prepared to deal with them.”
- Stafford Borough Council elaborate that “[i]f relatives are known of but contact details not known case will be referred back or not accepted by Bona Vacantia Division. LA needs to show have tried to contact any Next of Kin”.
- Colchester Borough Council refer to superseded TSol guidance that local authorities must take “reasonable steps towards ascertaining whether or not there are living next of kin before they will accept an application; we have not been advised that this requirement has changed”. They provide evidence of a referral being rejected.
There is some uncertainty and inconsistency as to the extent to which kin must be thought to exist before referral to the BVD would be inhibited. This in itself seems to create a perverse incentive to enter into an exclusive relationship with an heir hunter (see guidance note 14).
- Northampton Borough Council use researchers when “local authority officers have carried out enquiries to identify any next of kin of the deceased person (for example visited the home of the person and checked correspondence) and been unable to do so but have received information that there may be living relatives".
- Horsham District Council say that where they are “told by neighbours that there are next of kin we tried using genealogical companies”.
Several councils indicated that they use researchers because they are uncomfortable with holding unclaimed estates for any length of time, with the misleading implication that referral to the BVD results in intolerable delays, when in fact the BVD advertises all referred estates within five days.
- Broxtowe Borough Council say that “[t]he reason why we refer to [a particular heir hunting company] is to reduce the Council’s liability in relation to any asset as TSOL can take up to eight months just to appoint an assessor and then deal with the asset”.
- Devon County Council believe that “[t]he benefit to the authority is in ensuring that estates are dealt with as quickly as possible, enabling us to forward on any monies/items/valuables held as appropriate and then to archive the file/case”.
- According to Flintshire County Council, “[r]eferrals are necessary to either a genealogy company or to the Treasury Solicitor to allow us to dispose of funds held on behalf of deceased clients - if this action was not taken, funds would languish in the bank accounts we hold”.
Next of kin and financial implications
The majority of the 86 local authorities that use heir hunters were keen to stress that the services of the research firms are free to the council. Of the 77 that responded to the question on this point, 61 indicated that they were aware that the firms operated as commercial concerns who would seek to obtain finder's fees from located next of kin, and that they had considered the financial implications of this for next of kin.
However, most were keen to distance themselves from any financial transaction relating to the next of kin or estate, denying responsibility or involvement.
- According to Nottingham City Council, “[a]ny potential commercial benefits for the research company are not a matter of consideration for the Council”.
- Luton Borough Council stress that “the council does not and will not have any involvement in a deceased estate”.
- Similarly, Medway Council state that “[o]ne presumes there may be some financial benefit, but any private commercial arrangements are not know [sic] to the authority”.
Nineteen local authorities stressed that there is no obligation for the next of kin to accept the heir hunter's services and/or that it is at the kin’s discretion or choosing.
- Bournemouth Borough Council add that “the Council does not endorse or promote the services that may be provided to private individuals by research agencies who engage in tracing next of kin”.
- Broxtowe Borough Council suggest that, in deciding whether to take the services offered, next of kin “should take appropriate advice”.
- Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council argue that the heir hunting company they use “can ask the next of kin to pay a fee, however it is of the choice of the next of kin. If they do not want to pay the fee then [the company] cannot charge”.
The suggestion seems to be that, when the heir hunter produces a finder's fee agreement for signing, the next of kin will be astute enough to know that there are other available options. This ignores the fact that in many situations the next of kin, as consumer, is offered no choice at all and is often unaware that there is no obligation to deal with the heir hunter (see, for example, guidance notes 32-33).
For Birmingham City Council there is ambiguity around whether the next of kin are liable to pay the costs of the researchers. They say that the two companies they use provide their service to the council “without payment” and it is “understood that any fees for their work would be recovered from the estate of the deceased person”. They later add that the “[g]enealogical companies used by the council make known their costs to the next of kin when found”.
Central Bedfordshire Council, who use a number of researchers, mention one they have used "because they do not charge unless they actually find the person being sought”. Since the service is provided for free to the councils, the implication is that if next of kin are found they will be charged.
Waverley Borough Council describe the bind that local authorities feel caught in: “Yes we are aware that they may derive a benefit from locating the next of kin. We are satisfied that without the help of the researcher, the next of kin is unlikely to become aware of their inheritance. We do not have the resources to track down these people unless their details are immediately available and the Treasury Solicitors simply place the details of the deceased on their website.”
They fail to understand how quickly and effectively the BVD referral process works and as a consequence they assert: "We are satisfied that without the help of the researcher, the next of kin is unlikely to become aware of their inheritance."
Selection method and due diligence
Given the sensitive nature of the task, it is surprising that of the 86 local authorities that say that they use or have used researchers, the majority were unable to confirm that any selection method had been used in considering which researcher(s) to choose.
Although some of the councils indicated that they had at least checked references, several suggested that they use any researcher that approaches them indiscriminately, while others indicated that they simply use the researcher that was the first to approach them.
- Bedford Borough Council say that “any probate researcher which approaches us is put on a list and then we take it in turns to use either one”.
- Chichester District Council state that “[t]he council were approached by each of these companies offering their services for free to Local Authorities [...] To ensure that the process is fair and equal, referrals are made on a ‘cab rank’ basis”.
- West Lindsey District Council “picked a random company off the internet” while Southend-on-Sea Borough Council say that they “will often use a number of genealogists depending on who is available at the time”.
- Luton Borough Council use a particular company, “basically as they contact ourselves”.
- South Derbyshire District Council hint at a pre-existing relationship with one heir hunting firm: the council “approached this company as they were already known by the case officer”.
Other councils had consulted their procurement division or legal department but had concluded that because there was no exchange of money between the authority and the genealogical company the normal tendering process need not apply.
According to Caerphilly County Borough Council, although “no written arrangement has been undertaken” the selection was made “in accordance with the Council's Standing Orders for Contracts”. Durham County Council note that “[a]t present there is no guidance on what accreditation etc. is reasonable as probate genealogy or ‘heir hunting’ is a largely unregulated industry”.
Exclusivity and disclosure
Eighty-six councils admitted to providing information to researchers in order to locate next of kin. Twenty-nine of these, however, refused to release to us under FOIA the same information they had previously disclosed to the researcher.
Of those, nine appear to publish the information at regular intervals online so their application of the s.21 and s.22 FOIA exemptions may be justified, but only if publication occurred before, or at the same time as, details were passed to a single heir hunter or research company (for our explanation of how early information is exclusive information, see guidance note 25).
Of the remainder, six publish online only partially so that there is insufficient information for genealogical research purposes, and 14 do not publish at all.
In this way, a total of 20 of the local authorities we contacted are exclusively providing heir hunters of their choosing with the information necessary to trace kin and refuse to allow anyone else the means to verify the accuracy of research.
None of these 20 were able to produce a contract, although Manchester City Council did provide a Data Protection Agreement to ensure that the details of deceased persons and estates they passed to the heir hunter remained confidential.
The exclusivity of the local authorities’ arrangements with heir hunters, and the fact that details are passed to them one at a time, results in a lack of competition and the associated problem of overcharging, along with other poor practices that we have explained in more detail elsewhere (see guidance notes 32-34).
However, none of the councils we contacted indicated any awareness or consideration of these risks and many were simply in denial about the nature of the relationship with the heir hunters.
Purbeck District Council, for example, argue that the particular company they use “was not provided with exclusivity in terms of the information or with finding the NOK” despite only using this company and refusing to provide Anglia Research (or anyone else, presumably) with the same information even after internal review.
Policies and procedures
A total of 43 councils were asked to provide a copy of their death in the community, public health funeral or similar policy or procedure, and 28 complied.
- Colchester Borough Council elaborate that “the Council has not compiled its own written procedure; the process followed is set down in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and guidance published by central government”.
- Havant Borough Council say that they “work to the guidelines set out by the Institute of Cemeteries and Crematoria Management (ICCM) who are our governing body”.
Almost all of the local authorities that disclosed their policies/procedures had used heir hunters, but this use did not tend to be covered within the procedures.
Allerdale Borough Council note that: “There is no legal framework for how far the case officer should go to contact relatives. Each case will be different, but good practice is to conduct a search of the property, and interview neighbours and friends where possible. If any details are found, these should be followed up, preferably by a phone call. If the details are out of date and no contact can be made, there is not much else that the authority is authorised to do.”
However, they then go on to say that “[a]nother option for tracing family is to use a private tracing company, who provide this service free of charge”.
South Derbyshire District Council use a tracing firm, but do not mention the use of tracing firms in their procedure.
They do, however, have a section titled “Can I get in touch with entitled relatives – and how hard should I try?” [original in upper case]. This asks “what are reasonable enquiries?” The document states that “the Treasury Solicitor would expect you to have written to the address of any possible relative found either in you [sic] own case-papers or as a result of a brief search of any of the deceased's personal papers”. It notes that “[s]uch enquiries need not be extensive” but that “[o]nce it has been confirmed that the deceased has been survived by a blood relative entitled to share in the estate the Treasury Solicitor cannot be involved in the matter”.
There is a conflict between Boston Borough Council’s use of a particular heir hunting firm and the assertion in their National Assistance Funerals procedure that “it is important to remember that the circumstances of the death or information relating to the deceased affairs or property must not be disclosed to persons other than the next of kin” [original in upper case].
The majority of the local authorities that Anglia Research contacted were asked to provide copies of the email correspondence between the authority and the researchers, but only six complied with this request.
The following extract from an email from an employee of an heir hunting company to Harlow District Council reveals the way in which councils are vulnerable to becoming unintentionally complicit in financial arrangements relating to the deceased’s estate: “How would you like to proceed? The usual process when the estate is of modest value is for one of the heirs to instruct one of the partners [...] to act as the administrator under a limited Power of Attorney. This will allow them to act on behalf of the family to collect in any assets and pay any liabilities”.
The response from Harlow District Council is that “[i]f one of the family members are happy to engage with yourselves in respect of the estate then please do so”. The employee then replies that they “will get” one of the heir hunting company’s directors “instructed”, raising questions about the next of kin’s choice in the matter.
The emails between City of York Council and another heir hunting company have a friendly tone which shows the potential for council employees to fall into informal and thus potentially problematic relations with commercial researchers.
Many of these emails are under the subject heading “catch up”.
In later emails, an employee of the heir hunting company emails the council to suggest a search for next of kin at a cost of “£400 plus VAT and disbursements on a time and expenses basis” and the council employee has to explain that “I am in the difficult position that […] I am not able to authorise expenditure from his estate”.
The emails also suggest that councils may be divulging details to researchers about the estate of the deceased.
For example an email from Broxtowe Borough Council tells one heir hunter that “[t]here is property and substantial amount in the bank and a property in the region of 128-130k with no mortgage”. In a letter dated 7 October 2015 to the same heir hunting company, Harlow District Council sent “enclosed paperwork” as "requested", including a “Halifax Statement” and “Sunlife Over 50 Plan”.
Some interesting responses
City of York Council
City of York Council use two heir hunting companies, whom they approach “on a case by case basis” with “[n]o contract in place”. They believe that referring the deceased to researchers has “[n]o benefit to Council” but they do it “[i]n order to pass on assets held under a Deputyship Order in favour of the Council to the next of kin, wehre [sic] next of kin is not known.”
They refused to disclose the basic identifying details of the deceased persons who have been referred to these companies, even though the referrals themselves have already released this information into the public realm, stating that they “are applying exemption S41 of the Act (Information provided in confidence)”.
Following a second Freedom of Information request letter, City of York Council became markedly uncooperative. When asked “[d]oes the authority employ or contract a house clearance company as part of the process of dealing with a death in the community?” they responded “Under the Freedom of Information Act you have a right to request any recorded information held by a public authority. This is not a request for recorded information”.
They gave the same answer to the question “[d]oes the council require the said company to sign a confidentiality agreement?” Nonetheless, the Protocol for Public Health Funerals document, which they did provide, states that “if there is sufficient value in the contents of the house […] quotations should be obtained from 3 house clearance firms” suggesting that they do in fact use such firms.
Colchester Borough Council
Colchester Borough Council use two research firms. They see the referrals as part of taking “reasonable steps towards ascertaining whether or not there are living next of kin” prior to a Treasury Solicitor referral, and provide a letter from TSol “refusing to deal with an estate as there was a possibility that there might be a surviving brother. The Council had attempted to contact the brother without success”.
Although they have no contract, “arrangement” or “agreement” they say that when deciding which researcher to use they made their choice based on “whether suitable respect was shown to the needs and wishes of any relatives traced, especially with regard to whether to engage the services of the tracing company to assist in the administration of the estate”.
They note that “aside from the Government Legal Service considered above, tracing services of this kind are not currently made publicly available by any non-commercial organisation”.
Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council
Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council admit to using a particular heir hunting company to trace next of kin. Unlike some of the other councils, they do not publish any information about public health funerals. Their Death in the Community procedure does not mention the use of researchers to trace next of kin and they were reluctant to answer our questions or provide information.
When asked to provide copies of their correspondence with the researchers, and identify the deceased persons who had been referred to the researchers, they replied “[w]e are unable to disclose the information requested due to the sensitive nature of the personal information” on both counts, without stating any Freedom of Information exemption that would have justified this.
Birmingham City Council
Birmingham City Council placed an “opportunity” on their “procurement website; www.finditinbirmingham.com entitled - Locating Next of Kin – Genealogy Services for Birmingham City Council” and have been using the two successful applicants. The original advertisement was to “work with us to trace next of kin of deceased persons without payment” and they state that “[i]t is understood that any fees for their work would be recovered from the estate of the deceased person”.
The council’s most recent tender is for a contract of four years. Given that the council “on average receives approximately 100 cases per annum where the deceased person's next of kin is unknown” this represents a considerable, and potentially lucrative, amount of work if it passes exclusively to a single researcher or heir hunting firm (see guidance notes 32-34 for the risks of suppressing competition).
Although the council appears to release information about deceased people on an exclusive basis to individual research firms, when asked for basic identifying details of the deceased persons who had been referred to such researchers, they withheld the information under s.31(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows for withholding information when its release would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime. They continued to withhold after internal review and ICO referral. The exclusivity of information transfer and lack of transparency is thus perpetuated.
Purbeck District Council
Purbeck District Council use one research company. They are keen to stress that this has been a “trial”, that “[i]nformation was passed to one company to assess the benefits” and that “[h]aving done so, with success, we anticipate undertaking a formal procurement in the near future”.
They argue that the company they use “was not provided with exclusivity in terms of the information or with finding the NOK” which is clearly not the case: when the same information was requested on our behalf the authority declined to release it under the Freedom of Information Act s.21, which states that the information is already reasonably accessible and s.31(1)(a), which relates to the prevention of crime.
It is worth noting that these exemptions cannot logically apply to the same piece of information, since information cannot be both freely available and at the same time kept confidential because it could encourage crime. Furthermore, in Purbeck, this information is not in the public domain.
This report should be read in conjunction with the guidance notes, which outline:
- the statutory duties of local authorities in respect of public health funerals;
- the unintended consequences of the reluctance of some local authorities either to refer cases to the BVD (or, where appropriate, to the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall) or to ensure non-exclusivity of dealings by some other procedure if the referral process is not appropriate;
- the care that should be taken by public authorities when entering into exclusive relationships with commercial ventures (whether genealogist or heir hunter), when members of the public may be disadvantaged by such a relationship.